The Thiruvananthapuram-based Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology (RGCB) is widening its horizons with a Rs. 100-crore grant from the Centre, and the deemed university status is expected soon. Its Director, M. Radhakrishna Pillai, spells out the plans of the centre such as the setting up of a second campus.
How does the RGCB plan to soak in the Rs. 100 crore that will come to it from the Centre?
The RGCB plans to set up a unique second campus that will be the base for four innovative programmes of excellence. RGCB also requires establishing a comprehensive animal research facility, a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) and BSL-4 facility for the virus research programme. A unique feature of this second campus will be an innovation and discovery ‘bio-valley,’ which will house multiple technology and business incubator facilities for biotech companies wanting to use and develop RGCB’s discoveries.
The present campus will also have a comprehensive teaching facility once we become a deemed university.
How will these centres impact the educational scene in Kerala? Will there be tie-ups with other educational institutions?
What we seriously lack is focussed higher education in science, though we have seen the mushrooming of a number of specialised courses in biotechnology, bioinformatics and others. We hope to get university status this year. The approval is in the final stages at the Human Resource Development Ministry.
Our Ph.D. program has just been re-engineered and will live up to its promise as being one of the best in the country in disease biology and biotechnology. It is my desire to also set up joint Ph.D. programmes in translational medicine where part of the Ph.D. work is done at a reputed national or international medical centre. We are in serious discussion with a number of national and international partners. It is my dream to recreate the Harvard-MIT-Broad Institute model in RGCB.
What role can the R&D centres of the RGCB play towards giving the research culture in the State a makeover?
The research culture is in need of an urgent and serious make over. We have been in the practice of accepting mediocrity as a way of life. How many of our Ph.D.s from Kerala get into national and international post-doctoral programmes? How many go on to join the industry.
We still differentiate between zoology, botany, chemistry and biochemistry. The introduction of biotechnology as a subject has eased this situation a little, but how do we get translational research and biotechnology advances if inter-disciplinary research is not permitted? How does one do a Ph.D. in molecular medicine or genetic engineering if the eligibility criterion is the subject of the Master’s degree of both the student and mentor?
As soon as our university status is approved, we will ensure that the concept of true biological and biotechnology research is created. Our job will now be easier with the coming to Thiruvananthapuram of the Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research (IISER) and the Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST). These excellent centres of higher learning will allow a platform for better Ph.D. programmes in subjects connecting biotechnology, life sciences, disease biology, biophysics, nano-biotechnology and molecular medicine.
What are the courses that you plan to offer at these centres?
RGCB already has one of the best biotechnology Ph.D. programmes, being ranked consecutively as among the top three in India. We have now re-engineered this programme introducing a much more student-friendly selection process. We will allow all our selected candidates to rotate among all laboratories and make a selection in which area they wish to specialise. This allows a mutual evaluation by both candidate and mentor.
RGCB also realises that the requirements for specialised trained personnel for the biotech and health development industry are in serious short supply. We hope to introduce a comprehensive Master’s course in disease biology, methods of clinical research and clinical trials management, to supply this important demand. This will produce outstanding postgraduates who understand the biology of disease, how to study it and how to manage drug trials to cure it.
Has the proposed business incubator facility taken off at the RGCB? Are there any plans to establish more such facilities?
RGCB has now two agreements ready to be signed this month. One is with the public-sector Hindustan Latex Limited (HLL) and the other with the Technopark-based company Creara Solutions. RGCB has developed a multiplex PCR system to diagnose chikungunya and dengue. This kit was tried out in the previous two fever outbreaks in Kerala and found to be robust and valid. RGCB will have a joint technology and business development incubator to further validate and then transfer this technology to the diagnostic laboratories being set up by HLL. In addition, the incubator will also develop a more user-friendly and possibly a “point of care” diagnostic for chikungunya. With Creara Solutions, RGCB will develop software for clinical informatics and molecular biology analysis. Such software are essential to the large number of drug trials happening in India.